The Curse of Being Average and How to Flourish Anyway

FIRST, THE BAD NEWS: you are not permitted to be average. There is a rule. Surely you know this, even if the requirement is not written. It just “is.”

We think of the rule as a “curse,” one of life’s biggest problems, even if not much discussed. We therefore try to disguise our “averageness,” overcome it, hide it under a sofa.

When it doesn’t fit we get cosmetic surgery, tutoring, and take courses to improve our college entrance exam scores. Or lift weights, get tattoos, use makeup, wear fine clothing, comb-over a receding hairline, and rent the right apartment in the tony neighborhood. We even cheat on tests.

Have you ever met a person who prefers mediocrity? Who shoots for a pedestrian education at a run-of-the-mill school; or wishes he’d come from lackluster parents? “My dad is more average than your dad!” is not heard on the playground. We don’t want an undistinguished job at an average salary in an unremarkable town.

Why do so many worry about this? A few reasons:

  • There are no more small ponds. That is, you can’t easily be a “big fish in a small pond,” a standout in a village. TV, the internet, and the global economy make comparisons with the best people worldwide inescapable.
  • Many others are trying to “pretend” they are not forgettable. We often compare ourselves – knowing our personal deficits all too well – to the surfaces and self-reported glory of those who aren’t always honest in portraying themselves.
  • Life isn’t fair. The Theory of General Relativity had already been invented when you were born. Doing it a second time gets you no points on your score sheet. Nor can you split the atom or invent the steam engine.
  • We tend to compare “up.” We might remind ourselves that we aren’t at the bottom of the scale, but are more inclined to make comparisons with those we believe are “better off” and more worthy.
  • Much of the First World encourages the lie “you can be anything you want with enough effort.” Tell that to the guy who can’t tie his shoes but expects to compete in professional basketball or the lady who fails high school algebra and still wants to win a Nobel Prize in Physics. The media singles out the one person who triumphed over astonishing odds as an example of what is possible, not the tens of thousands who did not. We believe the media.
  • All of us have been transformed by evolution. Our ancestors succeeded in producing offspring who survived. Being above average tended to help in finding healthy mates and outmaneuvering bad guys. We instinctively aim for the same goals.
  • There is no escaping the bell-shaped curve. Think about intelligence. Assume all people fit into the bell-shape below. As one moves to the right of the tall vertical line marked 100, you find those higher in IQ (intelligence quotient). Moving from 100 to the left, the IQ scores get lower. Fifty-percent of all people fall below the arithmetic average of 100. Yikes!

THE GOOD NEWS: Being average doesn’t consign you to life’s landfill. If you don’t believe me, read The Invoice.

You have not only the inherent worth of your humanity, but whatever contributions you can make to society, friends, and family, even if those acts are not recorded in the history books. By the way, my contributions won’t be there either.

Be the best you can be, which in some areas may be above average, in others not. Giving maximum effort is within your power, even if sometimes you will only get a mediocre result. Such is life, no matter what you are told.

Be defiant in the face not just of worldly injustice, but nature’s random assignment of physical and intellectual gifts. Rip your life from Mother Nature’s hands and remake the internal qualities still in your control.

I have watched some of those gifted in the unequal genetic lottery – people of towering intellectual firepower – sink under the weight of a self-imposed desire to be “great” in the judgment of the world. They are like the mythological Icarus, who thought he could (and should) fly close to the sun, not remembering his wings were made of wax and would melt. Icarus fell to earth.

Some journeys are just too dangerous and difficult for all but a tiny few. Some journeys are not necessary unless your make them so. You can enjoy most other trips as long as a rarely achieved destination is not one of your requirements.

Near the end of our days most of us keep our own score – or no score at all. “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted,” as William Bruce Cameron wrote.

If you are preoccupied by the placement of your face on the totem pole of life, the higher the better, you may be missing some things: the appreciation of experiences good and bad, what you can learn from failure and the different lessons taught by success; the value of friendship and love, the taste of food you prepared even if you followed a recipe, the wind in the trees, the smile between you and a stranger, a good novel, laughter …

You cannot make yourself grow six more inches, but you can change your character, make yourself proud of yourself because of your virtue and acts of kindness or fairness, emotional generosity or courage. We must accept some of our limitations. Socrates, still discussed over 2400 years since he died, was said to be a homely, penniless man. He was not concerned. He also married a woman who wouldn’t stop criticizing him. He wasn’t much concerned about this either. Be like Socrates but marry better.

If you stop condemning yourself for “not measuring up,” then you will have more time to enrich your humanity. The loftiness of your character is in your power. If you become an honorable person who demands basic decency of himself, not just others, you will have accomplished something beyond price or rating.

As Queen Elizabeth II said, “the upward course of a nation’s history is due in the long run to the soundness of heart of its average men and women.”

The top image is called Daruma by Soen Kogaku. It is sourced from Wikiart.org/ The Bell-Shaped Curve comes from IQ Test Labs.

Thomas John Henek: Memorial Day Thoughts on the Complexity of a Life

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Though a courageous man, you won’t find Tom Henek’s name in a history book. He represents the “the greatest generation” who fought in World War II (so named by Tom Brokaw), along with some of the deficiencies of mankind — especially those men who lived in mid-twentieth century America. Regarding history books, he would be in any autobiographical one I might write because I married one of his children.

I never met Thomas Henek. He died two years before I fell in love with his daughter, Aleta, who is still my wife. Yet, as I have come to hear stories about him, I think he is worth describing because of the complexity he represents to those of us who might prefer black or white, good or bad, without the grays of human experience. So, if you’d like to know what being a “man’s man” meant back in the day, I invite you to observe one such individual of personal integrity but clear deficits. If you recognize both of these qualities, I hope it will lead you to witness the convolutions in all those around you, including one of the people you know best and perhaps least: yourself.

Born in Chicago in 1910, Tom Henek’s parents emigrated here from Poland. The City of Chicago once claimed the largest Polish population outside of Warsaw. Tom’s father was a well-to-do business man who purchased two empty lots, upon one of which he built his home. Mr. Henek owned two cars when most people didn’t even have one. Prosperity, however, can be a fleeting thing, as the family discovered after their father’s fatal pneumonia in the 1920s, well before the Great Depression.

Tom was the third of seven children, six boys and a girl. Their father’s death pushed the three oldest, all male, to quit school and go to work. Thirteen or so at the time, Tom completed only seven-and-a-half years of formal education. He worked for the same company most of his life, becoming a lithographer with a specialty in embossing fine leather book covers, a demanding job requiring attention to detail.

The family’s original name was Heineck or Hynek, German or German-sounding despite the family’s Polish identity. Tom’s parents changed their surname when anti-German sentiment swept the USA during World War I. Yet the father was not one to hide from predicaments. The parish priest and one of his married parishioners were having an affair and some in his flock, like Mr. Henek, knew it.

Tom’s dad confronted this fake holy man, who warned him to mind his own business. Mr. Henek didn’t. He removed all his children from Catholic schools and placed them in the public school system because the same priest taught them weekly lessons in morality. Tom’s father couldn’t reconcile the idea of this immoral man lecturing his kids about Godly conduct.

His next step further alienated him from the church institution. Tom’s dad went up the chain of religious command, at each stage told he should keep his mouth shut “or else.” Undeterred, he continued his attempt to remove the priest until the church excommunicated this “trouble maker,” not the guilty party. When Tom’s father died the church refused burial in the consecrated ground of a Catholic cemetery.

Henek’s mom had not been a supporter of what she claimed to be her husband’s attack on her faith. The emotional tone of family life changed dramatically after the dad’s demise. The mother continued to believe in the absolute virtue of the church.

Her third born son, Tom, did not. Young T.H. learned his father’s lesson of trying to be just and, though he believed in God, viewed any place of worship organized by men to be a flawed entity. He eventually stopped attending services, putting himself at odds with his mom. “I believe religion and faith in God are good, it’s just too bad people don’t live by the rules. God knows whether you are a good person or not,” he told his older daughter years later.

This youth became a defender of the underdog. He did not hold to his mom’s belief that all things Polish or Catholic were, by definition, the best. Born in America, he said he was American first. He judged no one by the color of his skin, his national origin, his faith or lack thereof. When he saw a fight, especially one person bullying another, Tom would try to break it up. This short (5’6″), stocky (170 pounds,) powerfully built, black-haired man didn’t leave such things to someone else. He took responsibility.

Ironically, the parish priest who had been his father’s nemesis gave a deathbed confession to the priest administering last rites. The latter, a genuinely holy man, reported the injustice done to Tom’s progenitor. The church reburied the elder Henek’s body in the consecrated ground of a Catholic cemetery.

Tom’s working life was not all sweetness and light. The factory’s environment was dangerous and the unhappy men of the factory attempted to unionize.

Although Tom didn’t lead the movement, he joined in, believing the cause just. The bosses alerted the Chicago Police and paid some off in order to get them to break up the picketing that occurred. For his participation, Tom, more than once, earned a billy club to the head and a night or two in jail. Nonetheless, the union prevailed and working conditions improved.

The USA entered World War II in December of 1941 after the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan. Many young Americans volunteered to serve, Mr. Henek among them, entering the US Army on March 27, 1942. Thirty-one-years-old, he would not have been drafted at that point in the conflict. Indeed, excluded from the infantry, he took the job of “heavy truck driver” transporting supplies and ammunition needed at the front. He married the love of his life, a red-haired beauty named Helen Grigalunas, before being sent to Europe.

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Tom Henek and his best friend in the service took turns driving their truck. One day, with Tom at the wheel, a sniper fired a bullet through the head of the buddy sitting just beside him. Tom kept going. He had drawn the lucky card of survival, the same card whose opposite face pictured horror, loss, and perhaps survivor guilt. His children say he never talked about the War, but his wife told them he had nightmares, as do many who endure battle. Though discharged from the Army on November 25, 1945, those memories lived inside of him for the rest of his days.

My wife’s father smoked cigarettes from an early age, as a large part of his generation did, and enjoyed an occasional drink with his buddies. His other major vice was gambling. Like most gamblers, losing trumped winning, but the young family subsisted and bought a tiny house in Franklin Park, IL where his wife lived for many years after her husband died. Siblings helped to pay off his debts. Yet when confronted about betting and smoking by his spouse he said that since they didn’t hurt anyone else he believed it permissible to enjoy them. Clearly, the face he put on his gambling ignored the family’s modest living circumstances and the imposition on his siblings. Addiction? Entitlement? Denial? Perhaps.

Back then, of course, second-hand smoke effects hadn’t been investigated, but on January 11, 1964 the government issued the first Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health based on more than 7000 research articles accumulated over the years. Moreover, as early as 1957, Surgeon General Leroy E. Burney authorized the official position of the U.S. Public Health Service recognizing a causal relationship between smoking and lung cancer. Thus, Mr. Henek effectively dismissed the danger to himself and the potential for emotional and financial suffering to his family.

Blind spots. We all have them. Some are big, others tiny, but one usually needs an outside perspective to see them clearly, as Tom Henek did not. Look in the mirror and perhaps you will view someone else with a few.

My wife and her sister Tomi remember Henek’s response to the predicament of a neighbor and schoolmate. Let’s call her Polly. This young woman “got in trouble,” a euphemism for out-of-wedlock pregnancy. The lover was the girl’s former teacher, who waited until the 18-year-old graduated to have the affair. Her father (one of Tom’s drinking buddies), told her to get out of the house and never return.

Tom Henek became incensed by his friend’s behavior. He walked over to his buddy’s abode and “chewed him out,” another old expression like “giving him hell.” T.H. told him not to throw Polly out of the home, but rather to embrace and help her in the moment of her greatest need. Tom pointed out the imperfections of his friend and lectured him on judging this teenager in light of his own defects. And, he said, “If you don’t allow her to live with you, I’ll bring her into my place and support her.” The lecture worked and the father of the pregnant girl permitted her to continue to stay with her own family.

That was the kind of person Mr. Henek was. A man who got off a long, late night train ride to downtown Chicago in a winter blizzard with my wife-yet-to-be when she was 13 or 14. Aleta’s mom and slightly younger sister Tomi were there too, returning from a family visit to Helen’s relatives in LaSalle, IL. Cabs were scarce and it took him about an hour before he found one. Just then a young woman with an infant in her arms turned up, a slightly older daughter following behind in the snow drifts, while the mom dragged her luggage with a hand only partially free. She too needed a taxi. Tom offered the ride to the young mother for fear the cold would harm her newborn. No other cab could be expected any time soon. Again, nothing to put on a monument, but something that counts for a lot, at least to my wife and her sister. By the way, my sister-in-law, Tomacine, was named after her dad.

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The father-in-law I never met was the rare person who changed his political thinking based on evidence. A veteran of “the good war,” as Studs Terkel called WWII, Tom instinctively sided with the US intervention in Vietnam. But as the body count mounted growing numbers of protesters doubted the “domino theory” predicting the loss of  S.E. Asia to Communism — the rationale for U.S. military involvement in a small country over 7000 miles from San Francisco. The Gulf of Tonkin incident that justified our military escalation proved as questionable as “Weapons of Mass Destruction” would later be in Iraq. Tom Henek began to change his mind. My wife remembers political conversations in which T.H. no longer defended the aggression. He was a person who knew, too well, the real cost of wartime. Over 58,000 American men and many more Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians, died in a conflict that continued long after Mr. Henek’s death.

Like many males in Tom’s day and even today, doctors are scary people. A man who faced enemy fire did not want to face a friendly M.D. Perhaps he believed “real men” didn’t go to physicians. Tom would not have been alone in such thinking. In the mid-1960s Mr. Henek started to cough frequently and all three women in the home spotted blood stains on his underwear when they did laundry. He ignored his family’s pleas to get checked out. Increased alcohol use did not kill the growing pain. Finally, a man who never missed work was so depleted that he collapsed at home and called in sick. Testing led to the diagnosis of metastatic lung cancer: treatment might delay, but not prevent his death.

It was Christmas time, 1967, and Tom told the doctors who recommended immediate radiation of his desire to spend his last Christmas with his family and be hospitalized thereafter. I will spare you most of the details. He rallied for a time in the approximately six months remaining to him and spent several weeks at home. During the last three weeks, however, while not unconscious, Thomas was bleary-eyed and unable to speak or move. Whether he knew the date or understood what was said to him is unknown. Death came on June 15, 1968 at age 57, the day after his wife’s birthday. His widow Helen cried herself to sleep every night for over a year.

My wife describes her dad as “the kind of man whom everyone wished to have as a friend, the salt of the earth.” Thomas Henek’s funeral drew hundreds, rather remarkable for a man who attended church only if he had been invited to a wedding there, especially in those days when weekly attendance was expected. Nor have I mentioned his sense of humor. For all his flaws, he raised two daughters who became fine and accomplished women and never but once laid a hand on either of them in anger, so horrified was he at the single (non-injurious) spank he gave to his first born’s diapered bottom.

There you have the life of Thomas John Henek: soldier, father, hero, husband, gambler, craftsman, smoker, defender of the underdog, and friend. A man much-loved. Complicated, isn’t it? We are imperfect and human, which is certainly redundant. Care to judge Tom Henek? I’m just grateful to know his story and regret I never had the chance to thank this man for his part in bringing my wife (and, therefore, also my children) into the world.

The top image is the confirmation photo of Thomas John Henek. The next picture is his wife, Helen. The final photo shows Downtown West, Minneapolis, MN, USA, 12/12/2010. The author is Nic McPhee. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.